Teaching Skills, Inspiring Activism
The Media Education and Empowerment Program at TecsChange
by Aram Falsafi, TecsChange volunteer

Some believe that technology itself is value-neutral. It can be used to control and monitor, and it can be used to liberate and empower. (It can also be used to promote more consumption.) In the end, though, what kind of technology research is funded, and what products it results in are a function of who controls the funds - sometimes directly, sometimes via control of government institutions. During the 1990's, we heard a lot of predictions about the empowering potential of the Internet. According to the pundits, the so-called "information superhighway" was going to liberate us all, enabling everything from on-line town meetings to distance education. The utopian predictions of the early 1990's ignored a fundamental characteristic of the Internet - its eventual ownership structure.

As syndicated columnist Norman Solomon pointed out in his insightful essay about media coverage of the Internet and its potential [1], the decade started with a lot of stories about the internet as a source of learning and communication, only to end with the same media outlets singing its praises as a shopping mall. Solomon notes that at the peak of the hype, in 1995, "major newspapers in the United States and abroad referred to the 'information superhighway' in 4,562 stories. Meanwhile, during the entire year, articles mentioned 'e-commerce' or 'electronic commerce' only 915 times." By 1999, the information superhighway received 842 mentions, while electronic commerce received 20,641.

Perhaps most interesting is the author's opinion of the role of the mainstream media in this transformation. "The drastic shift in media coverage mirrors the strip-malling of the Web by investors with deep pockets and neon sensibilities. But mainstream news outlets have been prescriptive as well as descriptive ... Many of the same mega-firms that dominate magazine racks and airwaves are now dominating the Web with extensively promoted sites."

Of course, for those who seek information and communication, the Internet is still a wonderful resource. But the first challenge is to convince the general public, bombarded with consumerist messages, that there is more to the Internet than online shopping. And how do you convince a fourteen-year-old who may not even remember the "information superhighway" that there is more to the internet than chat rooms and stores? TecsChange - Technology for Social Change - is a nonprofit organization based in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston that is seeking to answer that question [2].

Media Education and Empowerment Program

Imagine an after-school program for high school students where participants learn technical skills and realize that they have the power to change society at the same time. Where they learn to view commercial media with a critical eye and develop the skills to produce their own media using technologies like the Internet and low-power radio. Where they become active producers, versus passive consumers, of the various forms of media that they are exposed to on a daily basis.

That is the goal of the Media Education and Empowerment Program (MEEP), a new initiative of TecsChange. Broadly speaking, the program has two objectives. The first is to teach the young participants to critically analyze, deconstruct, and decode media messages and images in order to examine how media (electronic and print) affect their lives, their values, and their communities. Once they understand the shortcomings of commercial media, the programs gives them the knowledge and skills to create, produce and distribute their own media, using technologies such as the Internet and desktop publishing.

TecsChange started this as a pilot project during the summer of 2001, and plans to expand on the summer's experience by implementing a long-term program starting in 2002. During the pilot program, students produced their own community-based newsletter [3], and some published their own web pages.

TecsChange - Ten Years of Using Technology to Promote Social Change

TecsChange has its origins in the 1991 "Computers and Social Change" conference held in Boston. A group of conference attendees came together to discuss using technology to promote progressive social change, primarily through assistance to grassroots organizations (including women's groups, trade unions, and peasant organizations) in the developing world. Wishing to continue their work beyond the conference, they founded TecsChange in 1992. Some of the founders had already been involved with TecNica, which sent technical volunteers and donated equipment to Nicaragua during the 1980's - earning the wrath of the Reagan administration in the process. Others simply saw the potential of technology in general, and computers in particular, in promoting sustainable development, human rights, and social justice in the developing world.

TecsChange's first projects were focused on Latin America and southern Africa. When a number of South African anti-apartheid activists visited Boston in the summer of 1992, TecsChange volunteers created a customized computer training course for them. TecsChange also organized public events on the uses of technology in the developing world. In the fall of 1992, thanks to a truckload of donated computers from Lotus Development Corporation, TecsChange started its computer recycling program, donating the refurbished computers to grassroots organizations in the developing world.

In 1997, TecsChange volunteers decided to share the skills that they had gained in computer recycling with residents from low-income neighborhoods of Boston. TecsChange's Computer Repair Course (originally named the Earn-a-Computer Program) was modeled after a similar program at Bikes Not Bombs, another nonprofit based in Roxbury. In both programs, participants work on refurbishing equipment (either computers or bicycles), and upon graduation, each student earns a computer that they have worked on. This is TecsChange's largest and most successful program, although youth participation remains lower than expectations. In order to find qualified volunteers, the course has to be offered in the evenings, rather than right after school, reducing youth participation. And TecsChange's social message of solidarity with grassroots organizations is at times lost in the nuts and bolts of the hardware.

A New Program, Focused on Youth and Social Change

In December 2000, TecsChange decided to initiate a new program aimed specifically at young people (high school age), emphasizing social awareness and citizenship building as well as technical skills. The planning process took most of the winter and spring of 2001, and was led by TecsChange's then-Executive Director Mimi Jones. The planners soon realized that in order for the program to have a social change component, it must focus on the content (the message being transmitted) and not the conduit (the hardware and wires). They also decided to focus on electronic media (especially television) since they are most influential in shaping today's youth.

To attract young people, the program had to meet their schedules and not expect them to schedule their summer around the course's hours. So the program was offered during the day. It was run by Mimi, local activist and media consultant Nina LaNegra, and three summer interns. The financial cost was high for an organization used to a shoestring cash budget and lots of volunteer sweat, and without a grant to pay for the program. Thanks to a heroic fundraising effort at the end of 2000, the organization had an adequate surplus in its general funds, which was dedicated to the summer program. And other volunteers pitched in to help Mimi with her day-to-day tasks, allowing her to spend more time on the summer program - augmented by many, many hours of unpaid overtime on her part.

It was a worthwhile investment. The organization learned valuable lessons about implementing such a program. More importantly, the pilot program demonstrated that it is possible to offer a rich, rewarding program that teaches its students valuable skills while inspiring them to take action for social change.

Posing the Problem

The program's first goal was to demonstrate to the young students how they are targeted by advertisers and other opinion-shapers, and more importantly, that they are capable of deciphering those messages. The program started with a medium that they are familiar and comfortable with: videos and television. The group watched and discussed several documentary films that helped deconstruct the role of the mass media in shaping the public's (and especially young people's) behavior, images of themselves, and world view. Killing us Softly addressed the notion of female "beauty" as promoted by the entertainment and cosmetics industries, and its effect on the self-image of young girls. Merchants of Cool investigated the tactics that advertisers use to "hunt down" and lure youth into becoming bigger consumers. Finally Pack of Lies and Making a Killing exposed the role of tobacco advertising, especially to young people.

Making a Killing is produced by Boston-based nonprofit INFACT [4], and INFACT organizer Jeremy Greenfield facilitated a discussion about tobacco marketing after showing the video. This proved to be a very successful discussion, in large part because of Jeremy's approach. Instead of "preaching" to the students - something that almost no teenager will tolerate - he opened the discussion and let the youth articulate the problem and start to slowly identify with the issue. As a result, the students themselves agreed to go out into their communities and collect signatures for INFACT's campaign to retire the Marlboro Man, an advertising icon targeted primarily at youth. On graduation day, the students formally presented to Jeremy the 250+ petition signatures that they had collected.

According to summer intern Eileen Chen, "Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of the program was the students' indignation over the cigarette industry. The discussion centered around the issue of how easy it was for teenagers to obtain cigarettes even though it is illegal to sell cigarettes to minors. The students were very familiar with the free carton coupons found in magazines targeting African-American youth. As a result, the students participated in obtaining signatures for the petition. They roamed the streets and T stations to elicit signatures for the removal of the Marlboro Man. This was just one of the many ways media awareness was transformed into media activism."

You have a Dozen Young, Motivated Participants - Now What?

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary goals of the program was to empower the students to understand the subtle messages that they are bombarded with on a daily basis, and to convince them that they don't have to be passive recipients of these messages. With this understanding comes the power to resist, but on an individual level. After she sees the video Killing us Softly, a (theoretical) student may say, "I won't let the mass media's concept of beauty determine my self-esteem." But how can she take the next logical step, and get her friends and classmates to do the same?

That is where new technologies like the Internet and desktop publishing can come in. The second goal of the program was to offer students the technical skills needed to become producers of their own information. This created new challenges that Mimi and the other course organizers couldn't have predicted ahead of time. The most important challenge was the difference in computer and Internet knowledge among the students, which was far wider than expected - even though they were all high school students from the same neighborhoods. One of the students, Taylor Davis, already had experience creating web pages, while other students had never even looked for information on the worldwide web.

In the end, Taylor added an article on smoking to a web page called "Really Bad Habits" that he had been managing, and all students collaborated in creating the first issue of Media Wise, the newsletter of TecsChange's Media Education and Empowerment Program. While Taylor's article on his web page talked about smoking as a "bad habit," it also contained a strong anti-corporate message, pointing out the role of tobacco marketing in getting young people to start smoking. We can credit this heightened level of social consciousness directly to Taylor's participation in the class discussions.

As high school senior and MEEP participant Sesshun Lesley said in the article that he wrote for Media Wise, "Social issues that are important to us should be talked about, but we have to be willing to do what is right and possible, without doubting our own abilities to make change."

The program also included field trips to media organizations. The students visited the studios of WGBH in Boston, where Merchants of Cool was produced. They talked with the web development team at WGBH, who helped develop a teachers' guide for the documentary. They also visited FilmShack, an independent studio in Roxbury, where they learned about the equipment used in film production, as well as public access station Boston Neighborhood Network and The Banner, a newspaper focusing on Massachusetts' African American community.

Incorporating technical skills training in the program also made it more attractive to parents, who are looking for a summer or after-school program that will help their students' college and job prospects. Unlike middle-class students from the suburbs, many of these students attend urban public schools where access to the internet and advanced computer training are simply not available.

The Importance of Preparing Outside Speakers

The showing of Making a Killing and the discussion led by Jeremy was perhaps the most successful session involving an outside speaker. Unfortunately not all guest speakers were as effective in their contribution to the program.

In the second month of the program, speakers from an alternative media organization came in to speak to the students about community radio, broadcasting on the Internet, and democratizing access to the airwaves. This organization is made up primarily of young, white, middle-class progressives; almost all of them are either college graduates or college students. Excited about the prospect of working with people of color interested in similar issues, they arrived with a sound system and immediately started interviewing the students, for broadcast on their alternative radio program. Needless to say, the students were taken aback. All were circumspect, and a couple refused to say anything into the microphone.

As one of the interns described it afterwards, they had been invited to contribute to the students' learning. Instead, they "turned them into subjects" for the activists' own radio programs.

Jeremy had been trained as an organizer. The media activists were young and very committed to their cause, but not good at reading an audience and adapting their presentation accordingly. They failed to appropriately introduce themselves and break the ice with the students. They further failed to establish a level of trust with the students before starting the interviews, for example by teaching them the skills that they were expected to teach - the original reason for their invitation. Perhaps the activists thought, "we're all allies in the same struggle, and should support and trust each other accordingly." But that was certainly not clear to the students.


As mentioned earlier, the summer course was a pilot program. The goal was to try out some ideas and see what would work and what needed improvement. TecsChange's primary conclusion was that such a program can be implemented successfully, and it can meet both goals of consciousness-raising and skills training at the same time.

According to summer intern Marcus Pinckney, "The analytical skills of the students and interns grew over the course of the summer. Not everyone learns and comprehends at the same speed. It was evident by the conversations and actions over the summer that the students had gained awareness from the field trips and curriculum."

The three key lessons of the summer program are the following:

  1. It's not enough to motivate young people. For them to feel empowered, you have to give them the tools they need to change society. This can include critical thinking and media analysis experience, as well as technical skills.
  2. Don't preach - let participants pick their own causes, and they will be a lot more motivated to act upon them. And the satisfaction and sense of achievement that comes with the first voluntary act of activism is the most important contribution to the formation of a new activist.
  3. If the program has a technical component, it is important to know the technical level of the participants. Perhaps it will be necessary to break up the participants into smaller groups, with one group learning to do basic web searches, while another group learns to create a web page. Or more advanced students can start by tutoring the ones with less technical knowledge. In either case, this must be planned in advance.

TecsChange volunteers and staff are currently working to apply the lessons of the pilot program to design and implement a more long-term program that will be offered as an after-school program during the school year, and as a more intensive program during the summer months.


[1] Norman Solomon, "What Happened to the Information Superhighway?" January 6, 2000, syndicated on the web at http://www.fair.org/media-beat/000106.html

[2] For more information about TecsChange please visit our web page at http://www.tecschange.org

[3] Media Wise, Volume 1, Issue 1, August 23, 2001, available online at http://www.tecschange.org/meep

[4] For more information about INFACT please visit their web page at http://www.infact.org

Author's Note:

Aram Falsafi is an electrical engineer and a member of the TecsChange steering committee and treasurer for the organization. He wishes to express his appreciation to the staff, volunteers, and summer interns who made the summer program possible, especially to Mimi Jones for her commitment and super-human effort pulling it all together.